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How and Why to Get Friendly with Onions

I thought it was time for a cooking lesson.  I’ve been a cooking instructor for 15 years, and before that, I worked in the culinary program at Sur la Table for 4 years.  Suffice it to say, I have a great deal of information to share on that subject.  So let’s start with one of the most useful ingredients in the kitchen ~ onions. Every good cook needs to know how and why to get friendly with onions.

So many recipes call for starting with onions for good reason:  nothing adds flavor and depth more than an onion or one of its cousins. (I’ll share what those are in a minute.) Knowing the three basic methods and terminology of cooking onions will jump~start your cooking success.  In these methods, the onions may be diced or sliced.

If you’ve ever hesitated to cook with onions, then let me show you how and why to get friendly with onions ~ your cooking will never be the same.

How and Why to Get Friendly with Onions

Why Get Friendly with Onions?

Using onions in your cooking is one of the best ways to add flavor and aroma to your food. I can’t think of any ingredients, other than salt or acidity, that can change the taste of a dish more than the addition of an onion. It, or one of its cousins, is essential in the kitchen pantry.

Walk into a room when onions are cooking and you will instantly get hungry just from the delicious smell.


How to Get Friendly with Onions?

If you want to know how to get friendly with onions, then it’s helpful to know some standard cooking terms that are related to onions.

Onion Cooking Terms

TO SWEAT  means to cook onion until it is soft and translucent, but not brown.  Sweating the onion in a skillet with a little unsalted butter or olive oil brings out the sweetness in the onion, the first step for many dishes; use low heat and just enough oil or butter to coat the pan.

dicing onions in a skillet

TO SAUTE  means to cook the onions until golden brown, adding more depth of flavor and sweetness; heat the pan first to medium, then add your oil and warm it before adding the onions.

TIP: If you prefer to use unsalted butter (nothing wrong with that), put the butter in a cold pan and heat to sizzle before adding the onions.

stirring onions in a skillet

TO CARAMELIZE takes onions to another level; use the same technique as in sautéing, but cook the onions longer to a deep, caramel color. This method produces the greatest depth of flavor and aroma. If you love French onion soup, this is the first step. Use caramelized onions in sauces, add to mashed potatoes, or as topping on vegetables, steak or pizza; don’t stir the onions until the underside begins to show color; patience is the key.  Make a big batch and refrigerate.

Garlic, Leeks, Scallions, and Chives

Now for those kissin’ cousins of the onion, all members of the allium family. Except for chives, which we consider an herb, any of the onion family may be used interchangeably. Garlic, however, has a strong and distinctive taste and aroma; it should be used in smaller quantities than other members of the onion family. It should also be cooked at a low temperature to avoid burning.


bulb of garlic and garlic cloves

Scallion/Green Onion

scallions/green onion


using shallots


cooking with chivesSince onions are inexpensive, you can buy a pound and practice sweating, sautéing, and caramelizing.

TIP: If you cry like a baby when chopping onions, be sure to use a sharp knife and run the onion under cold water.

Want to save this information on onions for your future cooking endeavors? Be sure to PIN it.

Have fun cooking.


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